Bad growing season means rush is on for perfect Christmas tree

If Christmas for your family just isn't complete without a perfect, fragrant, fresh balsam fir, Doug Hoffbauer of Duluth has some advice. Better shop early. A warm, early spring followed by an early May cold snap damaged the growing tips of balsa...

If Christmas for your family just isn't complete without a perfect, fragrant, fresh balsam fir, Doug Hoffbauer of Duluth has some advice.

Better shop early.

A warm, early spring followed by an early May cold snap damaged the growing tips of balsam firs in Christmas tree farms from Minnesota to Maine, according to Jan Donelson, executive director of the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association.

"There wasn't a grower that didn't experience it," Donelson said.

The damaged trees usually survive, Hoffbauer said, though they may have grown unevenly through the summer and wouldn't be suitable to sell. He has been growing Christmas trees at his farm in Duluth since 1985. Beginning today -- the traditional start of the Christmas tree-selling season -- Hoffbauer said he'll be taking about 200 fewer balsam trees to markets in Duluth and Superior.


"The frost nipped a couple hundred trees," Hoffbauer said. "This year I expect we'll be sold out early."

It was a stellar growing year for most other species of Christmas trees, Donelson said. Plentiful rainfall around the state meant the spruce and pines grew full and heavy. But the balsam firs, which give off that heady fresh-tree aroma, tend to be the most popular seller, Hoffbauer said.

Overall, Donelson said the damage was far from catastrophic. But if customers have their hearts set on a fresh balsam, they might not want to wait until Christmas Eve.

"There may be a little shortage of balsam fir," said Donelson, who runs a tree farm in Clear Lake, Minn. "As a wholesaler, you just don't have as many available."

Growing Christmas trees is just like growing any other crop, said Donelson: The tree -- and the tree farmer -- are at the mercy of the weather.

Terry Howard got lucky with his 40-acre tree farm near Orr, Bough Wow Christmas Trees. He sells about 2,000 wholesale varieties of fir, spruce and pine to locations from International Falls to the Twin Cities.

This spring, Howard had been hoping desperately for rain, to no avail. But that meant the Bough Wow balsam firs buds hadn't started growing when the May freeze descended. The dormant buds escaped much damage.

"That's the one thing that saved me," Howard said. "I thought it was a curse, and it turned out to be a blessing."


Mike Laine, owner of Northern Minnesota Nursery in Floodwood, also saw damage to his balsam crop.

"It's cosmetic, more than anything," he said. ... "The balsam trees won't be as available this year, and they'll be a higher price."

Carl Wegner and his son work 100 acres of Christmas trees near Grand Rapids. They sell about 2,000 wholesale Christmas trees each year -- from white spruce to Fraser fir -- and this winter, some of their balsams sustained winter damage.

"For a while, I was thinking this was going to be a tough year," Wegner said. "But then it rained so much, what shoots did elongate made the trees look nice."

Wegner said he'll be shipping about as many trees overall as he did in previous years. And the summer rains have helped ensure the crop for coming years.

"This is the first year in many years where our seedlings have had good survival," Wegner said.

While Hoffbauer and his wife, Lois, also grow vegetables for sale at area farmers markets, he said Christmas trees are his favorite crop. He said the market for live trees has stabilized in the last 25 years or so; the people who buy live trees now usually don't switch to artificial trees.

"This isn't just a commercial venture," Hoffbauer said. "I enjoy selling the product. Christmas trees bring more smiles than other crops."


Hoffbauer and other area tree growers have also been experimenting with new, exotic varieties of Christmas trees.

"We have 28 kinds of exotic conifers," Hoffbauer said, including a Korean fir variety and a Siberian fir with soft needles that smell like tangerines. But only 10 to 20 percent of customers are looking for the newest variety of tree, he said.

"Most people still come in saying they need a nice balsam," Hoffbauer said. "It's like you still use a Rapala when you go walleye fishing."

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